The Ladies of Cake Zine Are Making Sweets Cool Again

Cake Zine

Tanya Bush and Aliza Abarbanel, photographed by Brandyn Liu.

Two years ago, Aliza Abarbanel and Tanya Bush knew something we didn’t: the significance of cake. Coming from careers in the food space—Bush is a writer and pastry chef at Little Egg, while Abarbanel is a former editor at Bon Appetit—the pair launched Cake Zine, their self-described “hedonistic” magazine examining culture, literature, and history through the lens of sweets. Their first issue, a sensual, steamy, and sometimes phallic exploration of cake, was a smash-hit, followed by its evil twin sister issue, “Wicked Cake,” which investigated the dark and twisted side of sweets. As Cake Zine amassed a devout following, throwing outrageous launch parties became something of a tradition. Their fourth issue, “Tough Cookie,” mixes stories of triumph (it features an interview with the Times Square Cookie Monster) with recipes, poetry, and fiction by writers as esteemed as the novelist Catherine Lacey. Last Friday night, 500 sweet-toothed readers packed into a Chinatown loft to celebrate its release. The night finished with a sacramental finale: a cake-cutting, followed by a feral race to get a slice. Once the madness had subsided, Bush and Abarbanel talked to us about the making of Cake Zine and their own favorite NYC bakeries. We also tracked down Jac Bernhard, a contributor to Issue Four, who found Lorna Doones to be particularly valuable during his time spent at a psych ward.


TANYA BUSH: This is the first time that we’ve got to eat the cake.

ELOISE KING-CLEMENTS: The forks ran out. I’m eating the cake with my hands.

BUSH: As you should. It should be messy and sexy and opulent.

ALIZA ABARBANEL: It’s become a recurring feature of our parties. We did not know how many people were going to come to our first party and we had our cake centerpiece. Then we saw the photos from that night and it looked like a fun altar moment.

KING-CLEMENTS: How are you guys feeling? Excited? Overwhelmed?

BUSH: It’s thrilling. We get to see a lot of people that we know and love in one room, and then also people that we’ve never met and are so excited to meet in this context.

ABARBANEL: We were in London last week. We did two events, at a wine bar and at a gallery, and everyone was like, “you’re doing an event with 500 people in New York next week?” We had a thousand people at our last launch party at Public Records. We love having big parties.

Cake Zine

KING-CLEMENTS: I’m looking around and I have never seen a small indie zine with this kind of whole following. How’d you pull this off? Is it luck? Is it just hard work?

ABARBANEL: Tanya and I have both been working in this industry for a long time. I worked at Bon Appetit. Tanya’s a pastry chef and a writer in the literary community here. And a magazine is a social object. We worked with 50 people on the issue and probably another 20 on the party. Everybody brings their friends. It’s a fun place to be.

BUSH: Also, what is more opulent and delightful than cake, right? People want to convene and gather and eat something sweet, and we’re giving them the opportunity to do that in a sexy, interdisciplinary way.

KING-CLEMENTS: Do you have any favorite stories from this new issue?

BUSH: Where do we even begin? I mean, I think it’s really special that a lot of our contributors are here tonight. I got to see Catherine Lacey and Hilary Leichter and Melissa Lozada-Oliva, who are fiction writers I’ve admired for a really long time. And Sabrina Imbler. All of these people are writers that we’ve admired and are coming together to write about and think about a really niche theme and then approach it from various modes. It feels really special to celebrate with them.

ABARBANEL: All of our recipes are really special, also. We work with really fantastic pastry chefs and bakers and cookbook authors. To be able to publish their work alongside fiction and interviews with people that dress up as a Cookie Monster in Times Square, it’s just really delightful.

Cake Zine

KING-CLEMENTS: What are your favorite niche foods of the moment?

BUSH: Tonka Bean.

KING-CLEMENTS: What is that?

BUSH: I’m obsessed. I’m writing a piece about it. It’s a South American bean. It’s sort of akin to vanilla, but it has a fruity, spicy, sort of floral flavor. It’s poisonous in large quantities, and I’m just really interested in this idea of self-regulation. Also, it has such a dynamic flavor profile and pastry chefs all over the country are starting to use it more and more. I think that’s really exciting and fun.

KING-CLEMENTS: What are your favorite New York restaurants and bakeries right now?

ABARBANEL: Taqueria Ramirez

BUSH: Spicy Village for Noodles. I go once a week. I love a hand-pulled noodle, that’s like the last meal I would eat. In terms of desserts, I think Kaitlyn Wong, the sous pastry chef, and Leanne Tran, the pastry chef there, make such beautiful, rich, gorgeous, perfect desserts. I’m the pastry chef at Little Egg and I think that we make really nice, very traditional, nostalgic, comforting pastries. I collaborate with a pastry chef every week from across the city.

Cake Zine


ABARBANEL: Tell her about Sunday.

BUSH: Sunday I’m doing a donut with Mehreen Karim, who’s an incredible chef. We’re doing a donut that’s filled with pandan custard with a salty coconut brûlée sugar on top. 

ABARBANEL: I would also say She-Wolf Bread and Long Island Bar for a burger.

KING-CLEMENTS: Anything else you guys want to add?

ABARBANEL: Well, I think making a magazine is inherently social, but also very lonely. We spend a lot of time on Google Docs imagining a future and we feel profoundly lucky to have so many people that come celebrate with us and we do appreciate it so much.

JAC BERNHARD: Do you want me to start over?

KING-CLEMENTS: Yeah. So tell me about your piece in Cake Zine.

BERNHARD: So, I was in the psych ward. It was called Zucker Hillside, but we called it Fucker Hillside. I was there for two weeks until I had committed an act of prostitution and my friends thought that I was out of my fucking mind, basically.

KING-CLEMENTS: What do you mean, an act of prostitution?

BERNHARD: So I was having a cigarette in Bushwick and this old Black dude came up to me on the street and he asked me to have sex. And I said, “Okay.” And I don’t know why I did that. He paid me, and I kind of bragged about it to my friends. They were very concerned, not because we don’t support sex work, but because it was so random for me as a person. I have plenty of sex worker friends, but for me it was out of character, essentially. I did that, and my friends urged me to go to this psych ward. I’m a trans man, and luckily enough they roommated me with this other trans guy who was hoarding Lorna Doones and other snacks. I’m not sure if he had an eating disorder or something like that, but he had a whole garbage bag of snacks. I realized that those were kind of a currency. You could make people feel at ease with them. You could urge others to do things with them. So what I wrote about in this issue of Cake Zine is that a woman with dementia stole my journal during craft time at the psych ward and I bartered with her with Lorna Doones to get it back.

KING-CLEMENTS: So you submitted this and they greenlit it?

BERNHARD: Yes. I’m actually in Alcoholics Anonymous and my sponsor was helping edit this issue. She was like, “I feel like you need to submit to this.” And I did. I’m very lucky that I got selected. They could have easily cut half of what I did, but they left it and it was very sweet.